Long live The Beaver: A celebration of Toronto's most beloved queer space
Folks connected to the dearly departed Queen West bar share their stories of why it meant so much to so many
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
In the relentless parade of bad news that is 2020, this past weekend's announcement that Toronto LGBTQ bar The Beaver will not be reopening due to COVID-19 hit especially hard. That's because for myself — and hundreds if not thousands of other folks — The Beaver was a home.
Unlike the limited and exclusionary kind of "gay culture" I discussed in last week's column, The Beaver was a space where everyone felt welcome. And that inclusivity had been its mission ever since Lynn McNeill and the late great queer artist Will Munro opened The Beaver on Queen Street West in 2006. While Toronto's queer nightlife is most closely associated with the Church-Wellesley Village, The Beaver was notably the first LGBTQ bar west of Yonge Street in a very long time; until this weekend, it was the last one standing.
Continuing the spirit of Munro's groundbreaking queer club nights like Vazaleen, The Beaver became a haven for those who didn't quite feel like they fit in on Church Street. The bar revolutionized Toronto's LGBTQ scene for both its patrons and the many, many DJs and drag performers who took its stage.
"We miss y'all and the lovely community of queermos in Toronto, and we can't wait till we can see regular makeup-smeared faces again around the city again," The Beaver staff said in their farewell announcement. "We love you very much."
A building may just be a place, but it's hard not to mourn The Beaver's 14-year reign at 1192 Queen Street West. There's no bar in the world I've spent more time in, and I can think of at least one fond memory there shared with pretty much anyone I've ever loved. It was where I hosted the first and potentially last iteration of two annual queer parties tied to film festivals Hot Docs and TIFF (Hot Cocks and STIFF, respectively), and it was really the only place in Toronto I could fully rely on for a feel good time. The Beaver closing — even if it ends up eventually finding a new home — can't help but feel particularly devastating, especially as it feels like the end of an era for the queer culture carried forward from the legacy of Will Munro. So I decided to reach out to folks who share in my mourning to offer words and photos to eulogize this iconic period in Toronto queer history.
Long live the spirit of The Beaver.
Traffic on Queen Street is inching forward at a snail's pace. Summer has been abandoned for fall, but no one told the humidity to go home. A late model Toyota Tercel makes its way toward 1192 Queen St. W. The passenger, wearing a Pepto Bismol–pink fleece nightshirt, printed with an image of a white, fluffy kitten resting a paw on a red rose, pulls his weight forward from an encumbered, slumped position of near sleep. He swallows twice and draws in a heavy breath, eyes half open, carrying the weight of a lifetime of radiation. A voice creaks forward from his strained lips: "I did this."
A warm feeling wells up in the driver's guts — the exuberance of acknowledgement of an incredible feat tempered with an overwhelming sense of a mother's concern. Her voice echoes back, quivering with admiration and profound pain: "Yes, yes you did." A crooked smile climbs forward over pursed lips, and a glint of happiness escapes a tired and frail corporeal form. Will sinks back into his seat on the slow journey back to comfort, back to visions of mischief, music and ethereal aspirations for another day.
"I did this." A complicated acknowledgement of one's own work or its social weight. For an emotional introvert, a very profound statement — one not lost on those close to him.
Understanding just what he did, or what someone like Will Munro used as a metric to measure such actions, would be a long and complicated table to build. Most of Will's artistic- and community-based promotions were based on complex notions of social alchemy. The right music in the right environment, heated with the right level of social discordance, would give those in attendance cherished memories and evoke feelings of envy in those that missed out. These accumulated. Layer upon layer of individual significance steeped in community history and sent out to live within a host to revisit, share and build...and oh, how they built.
What Will understood, something that many others had not yet realized, was community. And that when you feel its absence, you must build it.
Will's events weaved together generations that were once divided, bonded sexualities that had been fractured, and established bridges for those that felt excluded. Each event was a new path, a new infrastructure to explore. But that exploration was always being tempered by the temporary accessibility to spaces. Sanctioned by limited timelines, they were also overseen by those that did not always share his visions.
A space devoted to the community Will had been working so hard to establish was needed. After a friend, Megan Whiten, proposed selling him the Beaver Cafe, Will combined his skills at promotions with Lynn MacNeil to bring that space to life on Feb. 1, 2006. Just like that, Queen West had a new name: Queer Queen West. The space became a lightning rod, and the electricity that flowed through The Beaver shook and sculpted an entire neighborhood for the next 14 years. Its nightly events would roll into its morning feeds as thousands upon thousands of people moved through the doors of The Beaver and experienced Will's ideals and vision of community. Through The Beaver, Will's vision lived on past his death in 2010. The space became hallowed ground to those that knew Will and a launch pad for those that discovered the social platform that he built for them to stand freely upon.
For us, his biological family (a point of note due to the fact Will counted any person he loved as family), the news of the closing of The Beaver has been very difficult to process. It's as if another piece of Will has slid through our fingers into the ether, though we know it has not. It has been returned a hundred-fold in the actions of those that have built, created or were inspired by the space that was provided at The Beaver — the cornerstone to Will's vision and love for the community that he built so tirelessly around himself.
Thank you, Lynn, staff, performers, Army of Lovers and patrons. Thank you for making it possible for my brother to say, "I did this."
Queerly beloved, we are gathered here to say our goodbyes.
This fucking sucks. There's no two ways about it. The loss of a space like The Beaver is a crushing blow to so many people, past and present, who have made this space a home, a queer hub, a meeting place and, most importantly, the site of some of the best shows and parties I have ever been to in my entire life. I even threw a few of them.
When I first set foot in The Beaver, it was a quiet weekday night in 2011. A friend from OCAD was having a book launch there, and I had made my way out on the westbound Queen streetcar. Over the course of the night, I drank as many cheap beers as I could afford, danced on the back bench to Bikini Kill and accidentally broke a glass. But nobody got mad.
In the spring of 2013, Eric Kostiuk Williams told me he wanted to take me to see some west-end drag — something I was as yet uninitiated to, as I'd only been experimenting with makeup in my bedroom. I was thrilled to find out it was at The Beaver. There, I saw Igby Lizzard, Judy Virago and Nancy Bocock perform for the first time. And suddenly, I was home. The space and the energy of the night enveloped me and changed me forever in an instant. I got it. I loved it. I needed more. And I needed in. The way that space made me feel...I wanted to do nothing but make other people feel that. And I wanted to do it with those people.
Within a year of that first drag show I went to, those queens became my family. I had my first performance at The Beaver at a party I helped run called Trailer Sass. It only lasted for six months, but there would be other parties. There would always be other parties. There still will.
It's hard for me to not just give a complete oral history of a place I've come to love, respect and learn everything about. The routine of The Beaver is what I may end up missing most. The staff were also some of my best friends. It's been a dream, really. Olivia would see me smoking outside before I came in and have a Kraken and Coke and a shot of tequila just waiting for me. Sean and Amara had keen sense for when they should encourage folks to send shots of Jameson to the DJ booth as I played random shit like "Song 2" by Blur.
There are volumes and pages waiting to be filled about the things that happened at 1192 Queen St. W. over the last 14 years. Songs will be written, films will be made, books will be typed. For now, I can only say what an immense honour it's been just to be a part of it.
The concept of The Beaver and its genesis has always been important to me from the beginning. I never had the pleasure of meeting Will Munro, and I owe so much to him. I like to think there's some possibility we were in the same space or room at some point in Toronto before his passing in 2010. In all honesty though, I've felt like I've known Will so intimately just through how much I loved The Beaver and how much The Beaver loved me back.
There were times in my early days of drag when I wouldn't have had enough money to eat, let alone get home, if The Beaver hadn't taken a chance and given me opportunities to host and perform there on Monday nights. This space took care of me. It gave me somewhere to go, to create, to work, and to pass on that love and energy to all the others who came into it. Will Munro's energy and determination and passion is something I'll aspire to forever. And I thank him for leaving so much of that energy in that space to zap into young queers and creatives, just like it struck me in 2013.
There's too much to say, and I feel like I'll be talking about it forever, but to all the DJs, drag performers, musicians, performance artists and all the other brilliant minds who put their souls into this place: thank you. I don't think I can thank all of you enough for 14 amazing years of this space. The Beaver is a community and a self-created universe beyond the bounds of a building. An army of lovers will never be defeated. And we are an army of lovers.
The Beaver. Such a loss. It's a fabled history that generated tons of memories — a pandemic can't mess with that part. Will gave me a Wednesday night to DJ after years of DJing the Gladstone's Hump Day Bump nights. It was like crossing over to a safer harbour after the HDB crowd had changed. With Gavin and Davis behind the bar! So great, for years.
It's like we carry more and more on the inside when we lose such important external cultural markers. Seeing through the sadness, we know it makes us stronger. Finding spaces for joyful abandon and a communal sense of solidarity are hardest to find. There's another generation coming that needs teaching spaces with heart like those Will provided. With luck, a new space will happen. An army of lovers will never be defeated. Will's pedal power generated so much energy (it still does!) that those lights will be burning bright somewhere down the road in the middle of the night for a very long time.
What I can add to this is a recollection of The Beaver first opening and Will asking if he could borrow two large Robert Flack photographs of mine to help inaugurate the space and set a tone, for Will knew his history and by elevating those of others, like Rob's, we help lift ourselves. It was like a motto of Will's, to know your history. Will's impact is like an awakening for this city, and The Beaver's closing another chapter of a history book still being written.
The Beaver was where I found my footing as a queer kid in Toronto. It's where I danced the hardest, dressed the best, met all my favourite weirdos, discovered the Hotnuts universe, got squooshy at Chunk, watched half-naked boys dance on the bar at Eva Christina Presents, sweated it all out at Cub Camp, and where I got to throw some one-off parties that turned into parties that still exist today. It's where I DJed Fit, the second longest-running party at The Beaver with Kris Steeves, and so many amazing door people and performers. I learned to be a better DJ there and that a dance floor jam-packed with 30 people is more powerful than a massive space with thousands. Any day.
The Diet Ghosts:
All good things must come to an end, and like a ghost, the spirit of something special keeps going strong.
The Beaver has been a staple of Toronto's thriving, bombastic, weird and wonderful west-end scene for years, and now it will be shutting its doors at 1192 Queen St. W. Countless artists, iconic events and experiences have swept through that grungy, gorgeous alleyway of a bar. The House of Filth, Künst Kids, Justin Toast Gray's Drag Tribute, Drag Babies, Bands & Drag!, Selena Vyle's one-woman shows, Jacklynne Hyde's iconic SCREAM. parties, L'eggs and so much more that has defined our local queer culture.
Some of our favourite moments as a drag house have been at The Beaver. Kitty towering over the audience in an eight-foot-tall sea monkey puppet; Lady Kunterpunt bursting out of a version of the Mona Lisa with her face on it; Prince Johnny transforming a flame into a rose in the blink of an eye; summoning Aura's spirit from the depths of a Disney oil drum; Lucinda rigging an entire election (which Kunterpunt actually won because we counted the votes) and appearing in a hazmat suit to kidnap us; and most of all, the entire bar singing Happy Birthday to Swampwater Bitch in the wee hours of the morning.
To us, it wasn't just a bar. Over the years, it's been a haunted house, a small town abducted by aliens, a terrifying toy shop, an '80s sorority bloodbath, a cursed TV channel, a nightmare laboratory, a cat-hoarding sanctuary, a deserted tropical island, an office building stuffed with clowns, a prohibition-era cabaret, a derelict amusement park, a slumber party your dad didn't let you go to so it never happened, a zombie prom in a high school gymnasium, a demonic and glittery game show, a sleep-away camp turned cult, a '90s slasher house party, a groovy spaceship, a biblical dance floor between heaven and hell, and a nuclear winter wonderland. Most of all, though, The Beaver has been a home. So many queer people face displacement, fear and shame for who they are. The Beaver was a sweaty, cramped explosion of queer expression and joy.
A home isn't a home without the people who inhabit its walls, and that's evident with The Beaver. The Beaver is a community made up of memories (good and sloppy), support, relationships, experiences and that good old queer shit. It's always been our shared home in the west end, and everyone there has been our family. Gratitude comes to mind first when reflecting on this iconic queer space, and though grief bubbles up, so does hope. If there's one thing queer people know, it's adversity. Time and time again we emerge from it louder, more passionate, with stronger bonds. We look forward to wherever The Beaver lands.
Long live The Beaver. Thank you for all you did for us. Our love overflows like a triple shot of tequila at 2 a.m.: maybe it burns a little going down, but it leaves us with a warm glow and confidence for the future.
Extra special love to the entire staff. You let us get away with a lot of crazy shit.
We'll haunt you all again.
I have two celebrity Beaver stories.
1. One year, Images Festival brought in visual artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas up from New York City to present at the festival. His presentation was at Workman Arts. True to image, form and style, they had no after-party or hospitality planned for Atlas. I jumped right on in and asked him what he wanted to do: Remington's? Woody's? He said that the only place he knew of and that NYC friends told him to check out was The Beaver. So off we went with a small gay entourage. By this point, The Beaver's kitchen was really slim, so we had chips and guacamole and a few drinks. We hung out until the party started, and then somehow, in the midst of it all, Charles slipped away into the night.
2. Years ago, I was working in Katharine Mulherin's gallery, and on a cold winter Saturday afternoon, Claire Danes came in and bought a $10,000 photograph. She had been in and out of the gallery a few times looking at the piece, and she had finally decided to buy it. Her husband was shooting a show in Toronto, so they had bought a place here, and she needed art for the walls. We loaded the photograph into her car and that, I thought, was that. But then she came back into the gallery and asked me where The Beaver was: she was meeting someone there for drinks. I gave her easy directions (a seven-minute walk west along Queen West from the gallery) and she was off.
But I also remember:
Lots of drag shows over the years — as a participant and as an audience member.
Lots of bathroom sex — I am sure everyone has one or more of these stories.
Amateur strip nights on the back patio.
Sneaking in through the back patio door (when the place was too full, it was so easy to go to the alley and knock on the gate, and someone would always let you in).
Boys, boys, boys...
Countless hours of waiting for Will Munro to come downstairs from his apartment so we could go and do some weirdo art project somewhere. I can remember so many times sitting in The Beaver...waiting for Will.
DJs: Margot, John, Kris, Will, Reg, Jamie, Phil, Andrew Harwood and so many more.
Falling in love with Adam Cowan, perhaps the last person standing behind the bar. Such a sweet boy.
My final night at The Beaver: December 30, 2019. Last call and late-night dancing with CBC podcast wiz Jennifer Moroz. We danced to the long, long, long version of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," and Allysin Chaynes was our DJ and hostess for the evening. Perfect way to say goodbye.
It was Easter Sunday 2018, which meant it was karaoke night. Because the Monday was a holiday, I could indulge in a little performance, knowing I would have access to a willing audience. When we arrived, The Beaver was packed — like truly no space for more bodies — and the energy in the room was just good. I slowly but surely squeezed my way between the bar, the banquette and the many folks in between toward the DJ booth to sign up. I chose Céline Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." Karaoke etiquette says a seven-minute-and-37-second-long song is offside, but not at The Beaver. As the song built toward that iconic moment, every single person in that bar sang/shouted in unison "BABY, BABY IF YOU" with a passion that would have blown Céline herself away. One of my all time favourite memories of that place.
The Beaver was one of the first places I ever DJed with the House of Filth. If I'm not mistaken, Sophie and I threw the last party there ever. It was an awesome, joyful night, just like it always was, even with the spectre of the beginnings of COVID hanging over it.
They always made space for me and were supportive of any idea I brought to them. They let the House of Filth do stuff no other bar would. If a queen did a wild, messy performance full of fake blood or covering themselves in cake, they would just bust out a mop and Igby would talk on the mic while they cleaned up for the next wild, boundary-breaking act. They never gave us crap for it.
They were a sweet, honest staff who always worked with the artists to give them the best environment they could. That means a lot.
I'll miss the messy, sweaty nights there, and hopefully, when the time comes, they can find another space. I'll have memories of some of the best moments of my DJ career, some of the most twisted drag I've ever seen, friends' marriages, and some of the most important friendships I've ever made to hang on to in the meantime.
Barely a year into my drag career, I asked Adam Cowan for a weekly show. The answer was an immediate yes, with no questions, suggestions or limitations. The Beaver was a trusted community where people and art came first. Every single staff member who worked my weekly show made me feel safe, welcomed, supported and loved. They became family. There isn't currently another space like it.
The Beaver was such an important space for queer performers to get their start, try new things and have a lot of fun. It was truly one of the very best queer bars in the city. I miss it already, and I can't believe there will be no more drag babies making their Beaver debut or any more of the avant-garde shows that The Beaver was infamous for.
I've been combing through some fond Drag Babies memories in honour of all the unforgettable shows and friendships that Seyoncé, Little Maverick and The Ugly One set in motion at The Beaver over the last couple years. It was an honour and a privilege to DJ for Drag Babies Superstar! week after week — it was honestly one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to help other new performers shine onstage.
The Beaver is sadly closing and will be sorely missed, but thankfully the community that it created lives on. Thank you so much to all the staff at The Beaver for making us feel not just welcome, but at home in a way that many queers don't even feel when they're at their actual homes.
I'm an outsider who was only able to visit The Beaver once. I walked in, in drag, and immediately knew this was not your average drag bar. Not by a long shot. Was it the shoebox size? Was it the person wearing a helmet and mask made entirely of shards of broken mirror? Was it the projections on the walls, the weirdos and the music? It was all of these things.
It was cramped and the sound system seemed to point toward the dance floor/stage, away from where the audience was sitting. It was weird. Imperfect.
But the artists there knew what was up — necessity being the mother of invention.
I saw Allysin Chaynes, the DJ, step onstage to her music, strip out of her costume and wig without lip-syncing a single word. Then, at the crescendo of the song, she seamlessly started dressing herself in a new costume and wig, like the stage was just any other dressing room with an excellent soundtrack. It was stunning and alluring, and I was enthralled.
I said to her afterward, "Your timing was impeccable! How long did you rehearse that?"
She replied, "I didn't. I am the only DJ tonight, and I wanted to change costumes, but I couldn't leave the booth, soooo..."
And that, to me, sums up The Beaver.
The Beaver was my first bar in Toronto. I went with my partner right as the place opened up for the day; we were the only people there and chatted up the bartender, Olivia, over a couple of rounds of Space Invader. Since then, I've experienced it empty, moderately full and wall-to-wall packed, and have enjoyed every visit. It's always been clear that it was a space held with love, and I hope it comes back soon elsewhere.
Too many wonderful memories to count. A haven in the west end and truly the spot in the city where everyone felt comfortable. I spent countless nights there getting wild but also many evenings winding down. No matter what, I always felt at home.
My first-ever queer home is closed for good. It was the first queer space I set foot in. It was the first place I ran a party. Friendships were fostered and destroyed there. It's where I went for comfort my first day back in town. The Beaver means more to us than many will understand. It wasn't always pretty, but it was always ours.
Everywhere I've been in the world, I've searched for you, and nothing stands up to the hold you have on my heart. You made me into who I am today. If I were to close my eyes and wander aimlessly, I'd find my way back to you. You may be gone, but we will carry your essence.
It was the last place I went out to before lockdown. It was one of the very few spaces in the city where I actually felt comfortable. The Beaver was that rare place where the staff and patrons felt like a real community; I experience intense social anxiety that keeps me from going out to a lot of places. I never felt anxious at The Beaver. This loss hurts. Big time.
When I moved into the West Queen West area in early 2004, the Drake (formerly the Stardust) had just undergone major renovations and was about to open up to the general public. The Gladstone Hotel would follow suit with major renovations being completed the following year. At the time, The Beaver was just another boutique lunch spot (then owned by Megan Whiten).
The area had character in its almost nothingness, with just a few neighbourhood art galleries, restaurants and bars here and there. There were no condos, hardly any people, and it was quite livable — even semi-affordable — at the time, as most did not want to make their way all the way "down there."
After being dubbed "desirable," an influx of new shops, restaurants, condos and people began popping up, and many of us who called the area home were renovicted as landlords looked to make a quick buck off of the up-and-coming "trendy area." Some of us scattered around the 'hood, seeking refuge, while others left the area completely.
It was in 2005 that the now infamous "Drake you ho this is all your fault" was spray-painted outside the soon-to-open Starbucks location at Queen and Dovercourt. This simple but affirmative fuck you symbolized all of our frustration. (Whether or not you agree that The Drake Hotel was the catalyst for all this is another story entirely.)
In 2006, there was comfort in the familiar when Will Munro and Lynn MacNeil became owners of The Beaver. It quickly became a place to seek refuge from the frantic pace of North American heteronormative idealization happening all around us.
It was a hub that was the very embodiment of Munro's ethos, values and community-building mentality, which could also be found in everything he touched throughout the city (the LGBT Youth Line, club nights like Vaseline/Vazaleen, No T.O., Peroxide and Moustache, and so much more).
The Beaver, for many of us, became an anchor, and this was especially true after Munro's passing in 2010. It was also a space that allowed us to recall a specific time and place in our lives, and in the city during the 2000s. It was where many of us had spent our 20s and 30s, a time when the city had some semblance of a soul. The space allowed us to participate in memories of a bygone era — something tangible, something meaningful, that we could touch and feel.